Where’s the excrement?

Almost from the beginning, this is where it felt like the interview was headed.

A big part of my day job involves media relations.  Most reporters I deal with are easy to get along with, reasonable, and fair.

But there was this one time when I worked for a government-owned water and sewer utility…

City of Portland sewage treatment plant construction sign
Yes, I worked for a water and sewer utility before. No, it wasn’t Portland’s. Photographer: David Falconer. The U.S. National Archives.

It was some years back when I had a TV reporter for a small Spanish-language cable TV outlet ask to do a story on our oldest wastewater treatment plant (that’s the PR term for “sewage treatment plant”).  The request seemed innocent enough.  The reporter told me he just wanted someone to explain the process and walk him through it.

I figured I could handle what seemed like a simple request, without tying up our operations folks.

We strolled around the plant a bit when he asked me, in what sounded to me like a thick Argentinean accent (which I’ll never forget), “¿Y dónde está el excremento? (Where is the excrement?).”

Of course, his camera was rolling and I was mic’d up.  He kept looking into the various huge tanks holding the wastewater (which is, needless to say, mostly water), repeating the question to me, expecting to see a, um–I’ll use the clinical/medical term here–piece of stool floating in a tank or something.

Insider tip: that generally doesn’t happen.  At least I never saw such a thing.

The solid stuff settles to the bottom of those tanks you see at wastewater treatment plants.  It gets separated from the liquid and treated, usually via a process known as anaerobic digestion.

Then there’s dewatering, or drying, so the stuff isn’t so heavy and can be shipped out for use as fertilizer (in which case it’s called “biosolids”) or taken to a landfill for disposal.

Dried sludge
Sludge that has dried on a drying bed and is being removed.

As it turns out, most of the sludge was taken while wet from that particular plant so there wasn’t really much “excremento” for the guy to see.

Needless to say, the guy was quite annoying with his insistence and repetition of that question.  Clearly… he was full of “excremento” himself as far as I was concerned.